Tuesday, November 25, 2008

BU on TP


Peacebang (http://www.peacebang.com/) asks for more on why I think Parker had such a negative impact on Unitarian Christianity and why "reading his entire corpus messed with my mind" (see yesterday's post.)

Answering the first question requires a little personal background. I grew up a Lutheran in the Midwest and later became an Episcopalian in the Southwest and now am Unitarian in the Northeast. The first I ever heard of Unitarianism was in discovering Ralph Waldo Emerson in college (an alarming 25 plus years ago.) I was immediately drawn to Emerson and in reading more about him kept coming across unflattering references to a people called "Unitarian."

As time went on, I started to track down and read some of these "corpse cold" personages and found that they (at least a few of them) spoke to my need in a profound way. I became fascinated with the short life of Unitarian Christianity (I should say of Christian "dominance" within Unitarianism as Unitarian Christianity is still very much alive)

So, to speak to your first question...Unitarianism was often seen by its detractors as a "negative" religion in that it came out of congregational orthodoxy. This is inevitable in reform movements and the hope is that with maturity, the "negative" expressions are replaced, or at least balanced, by positive expressions of the "new" faith. Part of the problem with Unitarian Christianity is that it did not have time to ripen into maturity. Parker must take a large part of the blame for this.

Emerson undoubtedly had the more original mind and the greater impact on the larger American culture. Denominationally, however, it was Parker who had the greatest impact. Because he stayed in the church, was so intemperate in his attacks, and, not least, because his church was so large and popular (the first and only Unitarian mega-church) he forced discussions that drove the denomination into a constant defend mode and didn't allow it to settle into a calm and positive maturity.

Well I could go on and on (I haven't even mentioned slavery or politics, both of which were crucial to this discussion) but will stop there for now.

As to the second question...Much of the Parker corpus is occasional and not systematic. It is, therefore, fairly topical and often deeply intense (see the photo above for his intensity.) A little Parker goes a long way and a lot of Parker goes a little too far (and all 14 volumes in one summer-well you see my point!)

Thanks for the questions Peacebang and...

Blessings

6 comments:

The Eclectic Cleric said...

14 Volumes of Parker in a single summer? No wonder you're feeling a little cranky...

Can't remember the exact quote and don't have time to track down the citation, but I believe it was Thomas Wentworth Higginson (of Atlantic Monthly/Emily Dickinson fame) who observed that the problems with Parker is that he made many of the younger minsters who followed him feel like they must at at least attempt what TP acxtually ACHIEVED in his lifetime.

Parker's relatively early death and notorious hyperfunctioning were also in many ways the culmination of the myth that "real" ministry involved the sacrifice of one's youthful health and life in service to the principle of doing all we can - an elite but not particularly exclusive list of people that included Joseph Buckminster, Henry Ware Jr., and others much too "numenous" to count.

ogre said...

Food fight?

Emerson undoubtedly had the more original mind and the greater impact on the larger American culture.

I think that's likely not correct.

Emerson and Thoreau "gave up" on Unitarianism--and in some ways were thus far easier for the mainstream (secular) culture to embrace. But in the era? Parker had at least as great an influence, and for years after his death.

It is Parker's religion which peeks through the veil of Lincoln's discretion ("When I do good, I feel good. When I do bad, I feel bad. That is my religion.") -- and one of Lincoln's close friends made a point that Lincoln was deeply influenced by Parker's thought.

Denominationally, however, it was Parker who had the greatest impact. Because he stayed in the church, was so intemperate in his attacks, and, not least, because his church was so large and popular (the first and only Unitarian mega-church) he forced discussions that drove the denomination into a constant defend mode and didn't allow it to settle into a calm and positive maturity.

Foul. Foul again. And yet... again.

First, the entire idea of a "denomination" is a 19th century one, and one which the Unitarians were cast into largely against their will. Even in Parker's time, they weren't--as we still aren't--a denomination in the sense that others use the term. Further, there was not any definable Unitarian canon that was stable and extant when Parker started his ministry which he then (single handedly--the sheer power of the man!) kicked over. The religious movement called Unitarianism was ascribed a certain heresy and the name stuck--in part because many fit within it, more or less. But it wasn't the point. The movement was NOT about BEING a unitarian and adhering to that dogma. It was about the need and freedom to explore and find the truth.

Parker did that, as did Emerson, and Thoreau, and James Freeman Clarke and others. In Parker's case it took him from the conservative end of Unitarianism that he grew up with, complete with Jesus being something more than human and the Bible the literal Word and a text proving miracles... through what might have been mainstream (more or less, whatever that means...) Unitarianism of the time (a shifting point anyway) and on to what I can only describe as Ethical Christianity.

Well I could go on and on (I haven't even mentioned slavery or politics, both of which were crucial to this discussion) but will stop there for now.

As to the second question...Much of the Parker corpus is occasional and not systematic. It is, therefore, fairly topical and often deeply intense (see the photo above for his intensity.) A little Parker goes a long way and a lot of Parker goes a little too far (and all 14 volumes in one summer-well you see my point!) Parker lived within the dictates of his reason and conscience--which is what Unitarians of the time expected each other to do.

His riling of the Unitarian clergy of Boston was in large measure the riling of a group afraid that if they included him within their bounds, they'd be attacked more (from the outside) as unorthodox and also afraid of the conservative elements of their congregations packing it in and giving up on them. He didn't leave. They tried to make him leave the fold, and tried hard--and he refused. He studiously refused to let them off the hook of their prior claims and professions about religion and reason... even when they wanted him to just make it easy on them. They could have, but he held up that mirror, and they looked away.

In the end, however... he didn't run the first Unitarian megachurch, because the 28th Congregational Society was never accepted or acknowledged as Unitarian. Unitarian clergy declined to participate in his installation in that new pulpit. And they gleefully took his leaving the West Roxbury pulpit he'd served as their device for excluding him from their circles, no longer a Unitarian minister because he no longer served a congregation already identified and defined and accepted as Unitarian. The fact is that many Unitarians of Boston left their churches or at least stopped attending regularly in order to go attend the new church he helped found. Their ministers chided them and pursued them and even had others harass them...

He followed his conscience, and spoke from the pulpit as his reason, education, experience and conscience dictated. Thousands flocked to hear him pray and preach.

The proposition is that he somehow willfully hurt the institution of Unitarianism... even though there was no real institution there, and it rejected him, not the other way around.

His attacks were intemperate? They were aimed at members of the Boston clergy whom he knew, personally. They were people he knew held views that were less conservative, less orthodox than they let on. And he railed against that sort of hypocrisy. They didn't have to be defensive, they chose to be. They chose to try to stay within the mainstream of Protestant Christianity in America even after they'd already stepped out of it and been rejected by most. But they wanted to keep one foot in... so they didn't dare follow in the direction that Parker went.

For that matter, so did Emerson--only Emerson abandoned the pulpit and his critiques lost something of their power because he wasn't part of the clergy. Parker was--and his very success in creating the largest church in Boston (in North America, at the time, I believe) de novo right in their own front yard was a staggeringly potent criticism. Their own parishioners preferred his Unitarianism to their bloodless, genteel form.

He crossed into that realm which today liberation theology occupies, without abandoning liberal theology, managing to take the middle class out of their comfort zone and preaching to them about temperance and abolition (among other incredibly controversial topics). Yeah, things that the Boston elite (Unitarian and not) were immersed in profiting from....

What sort of "calm and positive maturity" do you imagine Unitarianism would have developed (without Parker)?

The very criticism you make of Parker is the antithesis of the criticism that liberation theology makes that punches a painful hole in liberal theology--that it enables a rather calm and tepid faith that fears to discomfit, lest its middle class and upper middle class, advantaged members be upset... and thus it gets easily coopted into supporting the status quo--falling into Caesar's orbit.

Parker did anything but fulfill that critique. Had others gone along and helped develop that into a mature liberal theology, the liberation critique would probably have little sting (for us, at least).

Minds should be messed with. It keeps them from getting fat, placid and burgerlich.

beeveedee said...

You've hit on my own complaint about Parker, which I must admit comes after a less though immersion in his corpus than yours seems to be. By being so "occasional," as you put it, Parker lacks much in the way of theological unity. This is something that I, for one, sorely need in my ministers and theologians: a sense, as someone (Church & Beuhrens?) that it's "all of one piece."

As for the Unitarian megachurch, the only other contender I can think of might the the Davies machine around DC in the 40s & 50s. Certainly not "megachurch" in the same sense, but many of the UU churches in the area used to be satellites of All Souls and in that sense resemble some megachurch "branch" models.

boston unitarian said...

Hello all,
I dont know how to place answers after individual posts so will "collapse" my responses. Fist many thanks to all who have, and may still, comment on TP. All of your thoughts are much appreciated.
Isn't it amzazing, Eclectic Cleric, the power of the suffering servant myth? To read Channing, Ware, and many others lament (esp. in their letters) how they broke their health is painful indeed.
Beeveedee, many thanks for the comparison to Davies and the DC branch churches-interesting and I had not thought of it.
Ogre-I don't want a food fight (esp. with someone named Ogre!) but I appreciate your passionate defense of Parker. It ascribes to my post, I think, much more than I said or was speaking of, but you make many interesting points.
To comment on just a few...Parker had a powerful mind but for creative originality, he even looked to Emerson. As for his "religion", I write not to criticize it (and do not do so in my post) I only say that his popularity and powerful expression had a negative impact on "Unitarian Christianity" I find much that is commendable in Parker's Absolute Religion.
Concerning the use of the term denomination, I would say that there is no question that the generation of Channing, Norton et...had no desire to form a sep. structure. But certainly, by the 1850's and 60's, when Parkers influence was coming to fruition, The Unitarians were a recognizable denomination struggling with all that that entailed. Of course the name Unitarian was originally a term used by its opponents to denote an idea that really was secondary to most of the liberals that formed what became the AUA.
I do not argue that there was ever great doctrinal or theological uniformity in Unitarianism-in fact admit readily that the period of "Unitarian Christianity" was incredibly short. I also don't give sole credit to Parker for "kicking it over"
That Parker, Emerson, etc...evolved in their views of Jesus and the Bible-of course they did. Parkers early writing is fascinating to read in this respect. And of course the sands were always shifting even among the more "conservative" BU's that I write about. I just prefer the approach and tone of a James Freeman Clarke who was a moderate, a friend of Emerson and a defender of Parker (though he disagreed with much of his theology and his stridency in promoting it) who sought to build bridges between "factions" If that makes his faith (and mine), calm and tepid-I can live with that.
I dont believe Parker willfully hurt the institution. Again you are ascribing much more to my modest post than I was saying. I think that he and his "opponents" acted, for the most part, in good faith. And they always respected his personal piety (his writings on "manly piety" are among my favorites and I will someday post exerpts).
I love the story of Parker and the bretheren arguing doctrine until Ezra Stiles Gannett stood up and praised the goodness of Parker at which point Parker broke into tears and fled the room (if I am remembering correctly)
Your example of liberation theology is interesting. I have over the years gone through my conservative evangelical phase, my liberation theology phase, my Catholic phase etc...and am happy, as I mentioned before, with a Christianity that emphasizes character and doing the next right thing "Love to God and love to man." It has given depth to my devotional life and, I hope, made me a more compassionate and dedicated person and church worker.
The "second question" of my post was meant to be a fairly light-hearted statement of my response to reading "too much" Parker in a short period of time and was not designed as a final critique of his work. As I said in my first post on Parker, much of what he wrote and did I love and admire.
As far as the "calm and positive maturity" I imagine could have occured...well that is just a dream I like to dream with my tea at night...
Finally, my intention with "Boston Unitarian" is to present a positive picture of a way of being religious that was advanced by the Unitarian Christians (to use an imperfect designation)and hope this response has reflected that spirit.
I thank you for taking the time to write such a massive comment and wish you, all who have commented, and everyone still reading this (can anyone still be reading this?) a wonderful Thanksgiving. Blessings

SC Universalist said...

Ok, best laugh of the week
reading the Eclectic Cleric say
"Thomas Wentworth Higginson (of Atlantic Monthly/Emily Dickinson fame)" in the Boston Unitarian blog.
Where else would anyone else describe TW Higginson that way these days?
Very very Bostonian.

ogre said...

Thanks, BU, for your temperate response. I'll look forward to more sometime later...

Happy Thanksgiving.